NEW YORK – Four people arrested at an anti-war march during the 2004 Republican National Convention have been awarded $185,000 in the first trial stemming from lawsuits over protest arrests surrounding the GOP gathering.
Coming about six months after the city reached an $18 million settlement with about 1,800 other RNC protesters, Wednesday’s federal jury verdict caps a lingering chapter in the legal saga that followed the arrests, nearly all of which ended with cases dismissed or defendants acquitted.
The four plaintiffs in the trial had rejected the settlement. Jurors awarded each $40,000 in compensatory damages for being wrongfully arrested, more than what individual protesters got in the settlement, which included about $7 million in attorneys’ fees. The jury also awarded a total of $25,000 in punitive damages against police Deputy Chief Thomas Monahan, who led the response to the march.
Still, “this is not about money. It’s about stopping police abuses in squashing First Amendment rights,” one of the protesters, Howard J. Gale of Seattle, said Friday.
City lawyers said they were disappointed by the punitive damages.
“The officers were faced with a very difficult policing situation and only made arrests once they realized that such a large and unpermitted march could not proceed safely,” Peter Farrell, a city attorney, said in a statement Friday.
The president of Monahan’s union, the NYPD Captains Endowment Association, said the award “is misguided and sends a chilling message to police commanders.”
“Chief Monahan acted that day consistent with his training and direction” and NYPD attorneys’ advice, union President Roy T. Richter said.
The arrests unfolded at various points during the convention. But the trial concerned only an Aug. 31, 2004, march against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A judge found in 2012 that more than 225 marchers were arrested without probable cause, so jurors weighed only how much to award Gale, fellow demonstrators Steven Ekberg and Robert Siegel, and march legal observer Andrew St. Laurent.
As the procession began in lower Manhattan, police initially seemed to guide the demonstrators but then abruptly announced that they were blocking a sidewalk and would be arrested if they didn’t stop, U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan wrote in 2012. He said they actually weren’t all obstructing traffic, tried to comply with officers’ instructions and didn’t get a realistic chance to disperse before being arrested on disorderly conduct charges.
The four plaintiffs were held for 22 to 35 1/2 hours, said one of their attorneys, Martin Stolar.
Gale, a research psychologist and activist, said he wasn’t looking for a confrontation with police when he went to the march, organized by the nonviolent War Resisters League.
“I wanted to do everything possible to avoid arrest,” said Gale, 59.
City lawyers have noted that only a fraction of the 800,000 people who protested during the convention were arrested.
Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter (at) jennpeltz.